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Story of Two Women: Two Death Sentences in Iran

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By Elise Auerbach, the Iran and Jordan country specialist for Amnesty International USA

Over the past weeks Amnesty International and other human rights organizations have been highlighting the plight of two women sentenced to death in Iran. Both of them have suffered incredible injustices, but their stories are actually very different and while one of them has received a great deal of publicity, the other has failed to attract the attention that her case deserves.

Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a mother of two, was convicted of "adultery while being married" and was sentenced to be executed by stoning. Her story received an avalanche of coverage in the international media--much of which detailed the gruesome particulars of death by stoning. Following a world-wide outcry that included human rights activists as well as Hollywood celebrities and high officials such as the Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom, the Iranian Embassy in London announced on July 8 that Ms Ashtiani would in fact not be stoned, although her ultimate fate is still unclear. The welcome announcement that the stoning will not be carried out demonstrates the effectiveness and the importance of vigorously protesting Iran's human rights violations; despite some claims to the contrary, the Iranian government is not immune to international pressure and world opinion. The apparent concession is however indicative of where the Iranian authorities' true priorities lie.

The second woman, Zeynab Jalalian is a 27-year-old ethnic Kurdish political activist. She was sentenced to death in early 2009 after being convicted of "Moharebeh" ("enmity against God") and she is in imminent danger of execution by hanging at any time. Currently held in Evin Prison, Tehran, she was arrested in 2007. Her conviction was based on her alleged membership in a Kurdish armed opposition group. She has said she was tortured and sexually abused in detention. She is reported not to have been granted access to her lawyer during her trial, which is said to have lasted only a few minutes and during which no evidence was reportedly produced against her. Zeynab Jalalian's death sentence was upheld on appeal and confirmed by the Supreme Court on 26 November 2009. Her family have received no news of her for a month and have been told by the authorities that her case file has been "lost."

While the Iranian authorities have relented in the case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, they have so far remained intractable in the case of Zeynab Jalalian. Despite the gross injustice she has suffered and the gravity of her situation, she has not attracted the same media attention as Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani. Although execution by hanging may be less "sensational" than execution by stoning, and although conviction on politically motivated charges--however unsubstantiated--may seem less deplorable than conviction for adultery, it can be argued that Zeynab Jalalian's case raises more profound concerns about the Iranian authorities' abuse of their citizens.

Iran executes more people than any other country in the world, except for China. Iran executed at least 388 people in 2009 and has executed at least 126 people so far this year. Execution by stoning is abhorrent and rightly condemned; in fact Iranian activists such as prominent lawyer Shadi Sadr have been fighting against the practice for many years. However only a tiny handful of the many hundreds of people executed in recent years have been put to death by stoning. The unacceptability of this form of execution has been recognized within the Iranian legal system; the former Head of the Iranian Judiciary Ayatollah Shahroudi announced a moratorium on stoning back in 2002 and it was reiterated in August 2008. Shi'ia jurisprudence, as interpreted by Iranian jurists, permits individual judges to sentence people to stoning despite the moratorium. This does not absolve the Iranian authorities of their responsibility to make every effort to permanently eradicate the practice everywhere in the country, but the fact remains that the authorities' attention has been directed elsewhere--namely to the increased use of the death penalty for political purposes--to squelch any form of dissent. In this sense Zeynab Jalalian's case is far more emblematic of the government's pernicious abuse of power, and why the international outcry over her fate should be just as loud as that over the fate of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani.

For the past several years, the Iranian authorities have been engaged in a brutal and persistent campaign against Iranian civil society and activists of all kinds--women's rights defenders, journalists, labor union activists, students, teachers, and those advocating for the rights of ethnic and linguistic minorities. This campaign has greatly escalated in the past thirteen months since the disputed presidential election of June 2009. As part of their effort to stamp out what they see as any form of dissent, the Iranian authorities have identified civil society activists as security threats. The merciless persecution of these activists is certainly coordinated at the highest levels of the Iranian government as a concerted effort. Kurdish activists have borne the brunt of some of the most severe repression; four Kurdish political prisoners, including teacher and social worker Farzad Kamangar, were executed on 9 May along with one other man. At least 15 other Kurdish political prisoners are on death row in Iran.

The Iranian authorities have been more willing to resort to the extreme charge of Moharebeh in order to justify their expanding use of the death penalty. According to Iranian law, the government must demonstrate that someone accused of Moharebeh has taken up arms against the government. However, in many recent cases, the authorities have made no attempt to justify their charges; in one case they even sentenced a young man Mohammad Amin Valian who was accused of throwing stones at a police car during an election protest last year to death on charges of Moharebeh. The only evidence presented was a video showing a person alleged to be the defendant throwing the stones (his death sentence was thankfully commuted to a prison sentence). In the case of Ms Jalalian, only some nebulous unelaborated charge of association with a banned Kurdish organization has been said to underpin her conviction.

As human rights activists, we must continue to speak out against all forms of executions in Iran. However, we should not be distracted by some of the more sensational aspects of stoning and neglect the far more numerous cases exemplified by Zeynab Jalalian, a victim of the Iranian authorities' pervasive and concerted effort to terrorize the entire population into submission.